A Gospel Without an Ascension

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ascension
May 21, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The story of the ascension of Jesus is told in Mark and Luke, and John hints at it in several places. But Jesus never ascends in Matthew. Instead, he gives us new insights into the nature of God, our mission as Christians and his ongoing presence with us.

Although the Apostles' Creed tells us that Jesus "ascended into heaven," this important statement about Jesus is not included in the Gospel of Matthew. Yes, the story is told by Mark, when he says that the Lord Jesus "was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God."1 Luke recounts the ascension when he says that Jesus led the disciples out as far as Bethany, "and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven."2 John does not actually give an account of the ascension, but he hints at it when he quotes Jesus as saying, "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."3 After the resurrection, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"4

But Matthew? He offers a Gospel without an ascension. To hear the story of this important event, you have to flip to the Acts of the Apostles and read about the day when Jesus "was taken up to heaven, after giving instruction through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen."5 After talking with them in Jerusalem, Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight."6

So why would Matthew omit this important story from his Gospel? Perhaps he wanted to give us new insights into the nature of God, into our mission as Christians, and into his ongoing presence with us. When Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, he tells them to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." These words contain a uniquely Trinitarian understanding of God, and they give us guidance on how we are to act as Christians in the world. Then Jesus says, "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

The nature of God

Jesus commissions his followers and focuses them on the Triune God who exists as three persons in eternal relationship. Although the word "Trinity" never appears in the Bible, Jesus makes it very clear that baptism is to be done "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." When we enter the church through baptism, we enter it through the "name" of God, a name connected to the personality, status and essence of God. When we focus on the name of the Triune God, we discover the true nature of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

First, God is our Creator, the deity who gives us birth. Scripture often portrays God as a parent, as in the book of the prophet Hosea, "When Israel was a child, I loved him."7 Jesus calls God "my Father,"8 and describes God as a father in the parable of the prodigal son, one who says, "let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again."9 But the prophet Isaiah says that God will "cry out like a woman in labor,"10 and the psalmist states that he is comforted "like a weaned child with its mother."11 So God the Father is really neither a male nor a female, but is a Creator God who gives us birth.

God is also our Redeemer. In the ancient world, the role of a redeemer was played by someone who paid a debt for a debtor or freed a captive through the payment of a ransom. The activity of God the Redeemer is seen most clearly in Jesus, as is stated in the Gospel of John: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."12 God the Redeemer, seen in Jesus, is the one who buys us back from slavery to sin. As people enslaved to sin, we need the Redeemer to bring us back to a close relationship with God.

As we focus on the Triune God, we see that God is also our Sustainer. In the Gospel of John, Jesus associates this sustaining work with the life-giving breath of the Spirit. When he appears to his disciples after the resurrection, Jesus breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit."13 The activity of God the Sustainer is seen most clearly when the Spirit supports faithful people and gives life to the church, sometimes in the face of incredible hardship. We are always helped by the God who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, after being baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

How we are to act as Christians

When Jesus commissions his disciples in Matthew, he sends them on a mission. They have followed him up a mountain, and there he challenges them, "Go therefore and make disciples." Being a follower of Jesus is clearly an active pursuit, not a passive philosophy. When we join this mission, we enter into active involvement in the ongoing work of God. "Go," says Jesus to the first disciples, "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Making disciples, baptizing them and teaching them. This is challenging and creative work, in harmony with the activity of God the Creator, the one who has created the heavens and the earth, and who has even brought the dead to life.

Christian mission requires commitment to God the Redeemer as well. "It is important to note," writes Brian Abel Ragen, an English professor in Illinois, "that the idea of a redeemer, a savior, is impossible without the idea of a fallen humanity. You cannot be saved if you are not lost. You cannot be redeemed if you are not in hock. You cannot be freed if you are not enslaved. American culture, even in its churches, avoids the idea of real sinfulness."14 Fortunately, God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to be the Redeemer, "in order that the world might be saved through him."15 When we follow this path, we invite people to put their faith in Jesus the Redeemer.

In addition, Christian mission challenges us to access the power of the Holy Spirit. Kenneth Bailey, an author and lecturer in New Testament Studies, sees that God always sustains faithful people and gives life to the church. Bailey points to the Mekane Yesus Church of Central Ethiopia, which in his lifetime has grown from fifty thousand to four million members. He notes that South Sudan has suffered and endured decades of war with millions of people dead. "Yet, over that same period the Church has grown beyond anyone's fondest hopes. Entire tribes are now Christian and African villages once Muslim are finding answers to life's deepest questions through faith in Jesus."16 The sustaining power of the Spirit can be felt by us as well, if we open ourselves to its power in our times of need.

God is with us in our Risen Lord

The good news is that we do not walk into the future alone. "Remember," says Jesus to his disciples and to us, "I am with you always, to the end of the age." Jesus promises to continue to be present with his followers as they advance his mission in the world. In a sense, Jesus embraces a name that was given to him in the very first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Not "the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," but instead the name "Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."17 Yes, the promise of our faith is that God will be with us, in the form of Jesus our Risen Lord.

At the end of the novel City of Peace, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden reflects on a difficult week in the life of his small town in Virginia. "The Spirit of God gives us gifts to advance the common good," he says to his congregation in a Sunday sermon. "We've seen the Spirit at work this week, helping ordinary people to do extraordinary things." He reminds them that "God's Spirit is present when people work and live together as one people, but terrible things happen when communities become fractured and polarized."

Then Harley looks around, and he remembers what the church had been named before it became a Methodist church. It was called Emanuel Baptist, and the name Emanuel means "God is with us." He suddenly realizes that God is truly with them.18

Yes, it is true that there is no ascension in the Gospel of Matthew. But in its place we are given new insight into the nature of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We are sent on a distinctive mission as disciples. And, instead of watching the Risen Jesus ascend to heaven, we are given the assurance that he is with us always, to the end of time.


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